When was the last time you were in complete silence? We live in such a noisy world that it's a wonder if you can't hear anything right now. Our everyday life is filled with two types of noise: a clearly recognizable noise and general vague background noise.
The biggest source of environmental noise is traffic. Loud and disturbing noise is easy to spot, for example, when you stand near an airport. In addition, we are exposed to environmental noise everywhere in our free time: in restaurants, gyms, shopping centers, elevators, concerts and through our own headphones.
The world is full of background noise that we may not even be able to think as noise. It is created during work and leisure time from conversations, e-mail chatter, phone beeping and all kinds of distractions. With open-plan offices, multitasking, interruptions and quick response to interruptions have become normalized. We are continuously bombarded by information, rush and noise.
Complete silence may feel even shocking to someone who is used to the noise of everyday life.
How does noise affect our health?
According to the World Health Organization WHO in Western Europe, 1.6 million healthy life years are lost due to environmental noise alone. Noise and an unpleasant environment cause stress. The symptoms of stress are diverse, and the symptoms vary from person to person.
Physical symptoms associated with stress alone include:
- stomach and intestinal problems, such as abdominal bloating, diarrhea and constipation
- changes in the autonomic nervous system such as increased heart rate and breathing
- weight gain or loss
- hair loss
- constant illness
- sleep problems and difficulty falling asleep
- hormonal disorders
- muscle aches and skin problems.
So, it's no wonder that constant noise, as it causes stress, poses a huge health risk to us.
Noise is a cardiovascular risk factor. It is associated with cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, heart failure and arrhythmias.
Studies with simulated noise have shown that even short-term noise worsens sleep quality and increases stress hormone levels and blood pressure. Noise also increases dysfunction of the endothelium, i.e. blood vessels and the cell layer lining the inner surfaces of the heart. Noise also causes oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress means a condition where the ratio of free radicals and antioxidants in the body is out of balance. Oxidative stress is connected to practically all chronic diseases. Oxidative stress in the brain is a possible explanation for slowed cognitive functions, such as memory and learning disorders.
Constant exposure to noise directly affects the increase in stress and mental wellbeing. According to an international study, long-term exposure to noise increases anxiety and depression. Living near traffic noise is also linked to fatigue, sleep problems, irritability and vague muscle aches.
Noise affects more introverts and sensitive people
According to research extroverts do well in a noisy environment, but introverts experience exhaustion and challenges in concentration if tasks are performed in noise. Although both personalities get the tasks right, it requires more effort from the introvert. It is the extra effort that causes physical and psychological stress.
On the other hand, research has shown that certain types of noise cause anxiety in both extroverts and introverts.
There are many sensitive people in the world who get stressed out by everyday noise. I am one of those, being a sensitive or a highly sensitive person. I experience different sounds, lights, smells and textures very strongly. I'm also an introvert, and I need a lot of quiet time with no sounds, no interruptions, and no interaction with other people.
You can find silence in nature
The first thing I notice every single time during the first few meters of my hiking adventures is the almost touchable silence. Or actually I notice that the noise and distractions are gone. Hearing and feeling the silence is an almost unreal experience.
Complete silence is best achieved alone in the wilderness or in the woods, far away from traffic nois. Silence essentially means that the cell phone does not beep accidentally.
Even if you have turned off the notification sounds, the presence of the mobile phone can still make you feel that you should be reachable. When you wander beyond the reach of mobile networks, the assumption of constant reachability also goes away. Both from your own and from others' minds.
When you are alone in nature, you can immerse yourself in your own thoughts, and nobody or nothing will interrupt you. It's easy to be fully present in every moment. It is especially nice to just sit quietly in a beautiful landscape listening to the silence.
The sounds of nature are not noise. The sounds of nature can be easier for some than complete silence. The hum of the wind in the trees or the roaring of the river calm and relax the mind, and the sounds of nature reduce stress. Of course, sleep can also be disturbed if there is a loud reindeer barking outside the tent or piles of snow drip from the fir tree onto the roof of the tent.
Benefits of silence and solitude
There has been extensive research on noise and silence and the effects of nature on our wellbeing. Based on my own experiences, I can also agree with all the following benefits of silence:
1 The ability to concentrate improves in silence
Many things affect concentration. Sleep deprivation hinders information processing. Stress, fatigue and exhaustion make long-term concentration difficult. Noise and constant interruptions make you realize that you are not able to focus on anything really.
In silence, our brain gets rest from the fragmented flood of stimuli. Even a short break in silence can help us return to a focused state and shut out unnecessary things from our minds.
2 Creativity boost
Ideation and brainstorming are best in collaboration, when ideas can be rolled out and developed quickly from many perspectives. Great creative works are still mostly born in silence in isolation.
Moving in the peace of nature accelerates the brain's creative problem solving when the stress that prevented it is removed. In silence, the mind is light, free and playful.
3 Decrease in blood pressure and heart rate
Just being in nature for fifteen minutes has been shown to lower blood pressure. In particular, the diastolic blood pressure decreases, which is good news for health.
A big factor in lowering blood pressure on a nature walk is silence but seeing and experiencing nature with all your senses plays its part.
4 Calming of the nervous system
Stress is known to cause stomach upsets and skin symptoms. The nervous system may be irritated by long-term anxiety so that the fight-or-flight feeling becomes chronic. In this case, the nervous system is in a constant state of alert.
Silence calms the body in a holistic way. A calm environment helps the autonomic nervous system to balance.
5 Better learning
Noise disrupts concentration and causes oxidative stress, which is linked to cognitive impairment. It is true that some people feel that they learn better when, for example, there is music playing in the background.
However, some people need peace and quiet in order to focus on learning. Everyone benefits from the removal of everyday background noise, such as interruptions and loud noises.
6 Productivity growth
When stress recedes, creativity increases, and we have more energy. Thus, we are able to do more without burdening ourselves.
Productivity can mean more and better quality in work, more Icelandic knits from the needles, or a major cleaning and recycling of the wardrobe that has been waiting for 'inspiration'.
7 Be a nicer person
Due to stress and irritation caused by noise, we can react with hostility to people around us. When we are under a lot of stress, it can be difficult to regulate emotional reactions.
When we spend time in silence, we may become nicer towards other people. I completely agree with this – no matter how irritated I had been when heading to the forest, I always come back home smiling!
8 Help with sleep disorders
When you're stressed and your nervous system is disturbed, it can be difficult to calm down before going to bed. We also react to nocturnal sounds, even if we are not even aware of it, or wake up to the noise. Nocturnal noise causes adrenaline and cortisol surges in our sleeping body. Disturbed sleep shows up as daytime fatigue.
Everyone should experience the silence of the forest or wilderness at least once in their life: sleep in nature's cradle like a baby. If you’ve got the right equipment on your hike, you will wake up under the trees like a new person!
9 Awareness and presence
When we are busy, our mind easily wanders a little here and there. We stress about future events and ruminate on things that have already happened. We get stuck in our own perspective and learned ways of reacting, even if they always lead to the same end result.
In silence, it is good to develop your own awareness and presence skills. In silence, you can focus on the current moment and its experience, observation and acceptance.
10 Peace of mind
In silence, we can face and accept our own thoughts and body sensations, look at them from the outside. You can feel that it's okay, this is who I am – you can accept yourself.
In silence, you don't have to play any role that you may have adopted due to pressure from the outside or from your own demands on yourself. Through empathy and acceptance, you can achieve peace of mind.
So why do we need silence more than ever? We need silence to stay healthy in an increasingly noisy world. Silence is invaluable for our overall wellbeing.
I dare to say that people would be nicer to each other and the world would be a better place to live if we had enough silence and opportunities to spend relaxed time in nature. Silence and the peace of nature suit everyone, regardless of character traits and personality!